Richard North, 03/07/2017  
 


So, after a complex and lengthy piece covering Booker's article about Grenfell Tower, I'm able to turn to his shorter and simpler piece on the Efta/EEA (Norway) option.

As the great Brexit shambles continues, the issue that attracts his attention is whether our politicians have the faintest clue of what they are talking about. And one of the most telling hints as to their state of knowledge is their view on whether we can somehow leave the EU but remain in its "Customs Union".

The likes of Philip Hammond and Chuka Umunna, the leader of last week's Labour rebels, clearly haven't even got to square one in their failure to grasp that a country can only be in the "Customs Union" if it is a full member of the EU (under treaty rules laid down in 1957).

It really is quite remarkable how many politicians do fail to grasp that single, fundamental point, that the EU's customs union is so embedded in the core of its founding treaty that there is not the remotest possibility of the UK staying in it after Brexit.

Not a few of these politicians doubtless confuse the different concepts of customs union and customs cooperation, and by far the majority of those believe that the free movement of goods depend intrinsically on the customs union, rather than the Single Market.

Even those who have some dim idea about the role of the customs union in abolishing tariffs between members, fail to understand that, if tariff elimination is the issue (and only that), then a basic free trade agreement will achieve the desired effect, without having to buy into the common external tariff (CET).

Not subscribing to the CET does, of course, mean that we could have to deal with rules of origin (ROO), if we were then to diverge from the EU's external tariffs. But, since we intend to adopt the EU's WTO schedules of tariffs – for the time being – there will be no divergence. The UK will not become a back door to the EU, and ROO simply will not apply. It is a non-problem.

The crucial issues then are the free movement of goods and services, to which effect – says Booker - our gifted MPs should be focusing on the EU's sophisticated system of "Customs Co-operation”, set up in 1994, which is what allows 14,000 lorries a day to move effortlessly between Dover and Calais, as also across the Northern Irish border, and much else besides.

Free movement, though, does not just cover goods. The Single Market – even if with less efficiency – also covers services, including the massive financial sector, on which the City relies.

It's not commonly thought of in such terms, but air transport is classified as a service. Alongside tourism and related services, it is as important to our economy as financial services. Thus, our politicians should also be heeding the growing alarm over what could happen if we are excluded from the equally complex EU system that governs every aspect of aviation and air traffic.

Last week, Peter Fankhauser, the chief executive of Thomas Cook, colourfully predicted that unless our politicians wake up to these potential dangers, we risk being taken back to the "medieval age", echoing the rather plainer warnings of Michael O'Leary, the chief executive of Ryanair, that in Britain we could even find ourselves no longer entitled to fly our aircraft anywhere outside UK airspace.

It is all this and more, Booker advises us, we could have held on to if we had joined Norway in Efta and remained in the wider EEA (and therefore the single market). But it is this from which, by deciding instead to become what the EU classifies as a "third country", requiring the re-erection of the full panoply of border controls, we are choosing to exclude ourselves.

Booker thus concludes that, in this way only chaos lies; as David Davis and his fellow "ultra-Brexiteers" will soon very uncomfortably come to learn.

Interestingly, of the two main Booker articles, it was this to which the majority of comments were attached – with the usual diatribes but also some more considered responses. There is a sense of the mood changing, as more people are prepared to come out into the open and support the Efta/EEA proposition.

But it isn't only the ignorance of the politicians and the "ultra-Brexiteers" that we have to deal with. We also have the formidable ignorance of journalists, those such as Patrick Wintour in the Guardian who writes an illiterate piece about Efta "associate membership" and then goes on to tell us that this could become the settled position of the UK.

Alternatively, he writes, it could be a precursor to two further stages – either full Efta membership or even potentially rejoining the EU's single market through the European Economic Area. There is a certain ambiguity there, but are we really seeing a journalist write, "either … or"?

This, fortunately, isn't the only contribution from the Guardian. Running on its front page is the headline, "British officials drop 'cake and eat it' approach to Brexit negotiations", with the story having insiders saying that ministers will have to choose between economic interests or sovereignty.

The body text lays out the detail, announcing that British officials have quietly abandoned hope of securing the government's promised "cake and eat it" Brexit deal. They are increasingly accepting the inevitability of a painful trade-off between market access and political control when the UK leaves the EU.

This comes from "government insiders" and, in a welcome change from the euphoric "sunlit uplands" rhetoric coming from Davis, they report a "dramatic change of mood" at DExEU since the general election, with growing Treasury influence helping force ministers to choose between prioritising economic interests or sovereignty.

Civil servants are now said to be presenting ministers with a more binary choice: accept political compromises similar to aspects of the European Economic Area (EEA), or settle for a much more limited trade deal such as the recent EU-Canada free trade agreement (Ceta).

"We have a problem in that really there are only two viable options", one official told the Guardian. "One is a high-access, low-control arrangement which looks a bit like the EEA. The other is a low-access, high-control arrangement where you eventually end up looking like Ceta – a more classic free trade agreement, if you are lucky".

As to the "high-access, high-control situation" – outlined in Mrs May's Lancaster House speech - that remains the official policy position. But the author of that speech [reported to be Downing Street adviser Nick Timothy] is "no longer in an influential position".

Sadly, though, Whitehall still hasn't quite (or at all) got there. Full EEA-style participation in the single market is still seen as politically toxic, "due to its requirement to accept freedom of movement".

Thus, pressure is building for a rethink of opposition to a customs union with the EU. This, it is said, "would satisfy many business leaders, who are clamouring for ways to avoid trapping manufacturers behind an inflexible tariff wall but possibly still allow new international trade deals to be pursued in the service sector".

"What we've seen post-election is that business voices that had felt bullied into silence pre-election are recovering their voice", explained a senior official. "The economic arguments that had got lost in the last six months are now being heard again and those who had tried to railroad this by saying you are talking your country down are being given a run for their money".

This, though, is layering ignorance on ignorance. This is not so much the blind leading the blind, as the changing of the white sticks – a different set of ignoramuses leading the fray.

One again, the extraordinary lack of knowledge about the European Union and its systems is coming to the fore. I was pretty shocked yesterday to read the Architects Journal and he comment of Konstantinos Tsavdaridis, associate professor of structural engineering at the University of Leeds. Both are saying, in respect of Grenfell Tower, that the UK needs to adopt system testing. Both seem completely unaware of BS8414, much less the EU role in preventing its full adoption.

If you still think that people in high places necessarily know their stuff, or that the civil service and the higher echelons of business are filled with people who know what they are talking about, you need to disabuse yourself of what is a cruel illusion. The higher you go, the more ignorance you meet.

However, some civil service insiders are aware of the need to agree "which vision will prevail before the first phase of EU negotiations is concluded over the summer" (has it really taken them this long to realise?).

Our prescient senior official warns that, "there is still a fudge and before we get down to negotiating in October/November we have got to decide once and for all which of those two options we are going for". He then adds: "What you can't do is sustain a fudge because then you are going into negotiations without knowing what you want".

One is pleased that the message is finally getting through to the senior level but, if this is only the point that they have reached – a year since the referendum – then we will be seeing the turn of the century before they come up with a credible negotiating position.

We really haven't got time for this. We need our officials out of the crèche and into the real world. We're not paying them for Janet & John lessons.






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